7 ways to make the most of your time in Chiang Mai

Yasemen Kaner-White

Yasemen Kaner-White

Once an independent kingdom, northern Chiang Mai*, the second-largest city in Thailand, is a popular place for residents to go for cooler weather and an injection of nature, be it hiking in the mountains or strolling through a national park.

One of Chiang Mai’s many temples
One of Chiang Mai’s many temples © Milkovasa - Adobe Stock Image

Before the railways, locals fine-tuned their artisanal goods to be self-sufficient, so Chiang Mai is also the craft centre of Thailand* while taste-testing indigenous dishes such as crispy pork and rice so good Bangkok-dwellers pack it up to take home is an essential. Here's our pick of the top things to see and do in Thailand's de facto capital of the north.

Getting to Chiang Mai: find fabulous savings on holidays to Thailand* and Southeast Asia* with the long-haul experts at Travelbag*.

See how specialist umbrellas are made

Visit the Umbrella Making Center in Ton Pao to see how one of the handicrafts Chiang Mai is famous for is created from scratch.

You'll see how the tree bark is pulped, placed into water, sifted, dried, constructed, shaped and painted to produce spectacular handmade, delicate parasols to shield you from the elements, be it sun or rain.

You can even book a spot in one of the workshops to make your own, or simply buy your own from the vast range of sizes, colours and designs at incredibly reasonable prices, as well as fans and other intricate handmade items.

Go temple-hopping

Get a feel for the city's beautiful, historic Buddhist temples (or, 'wats') including 700-year-old Wat Umong where you'll also find a surreal series of ancient tunnels with seated statues.

Meanwhile, Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai town built in 1296 by King Mengrai of the Lanna Kingdom, is bolstered by ethereal rows of elephant-shaped buttresses.

Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai
Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai © Wirojsid - Adobe Stock Image

Then there's Wat Phra Singh, which houses Phra Phuttha Sihing, Chiang Mai's most sacred Buddha image, Wat Chedi Luang Temple where you can see Chiang Mai's largest Buddhist chedi dating from 1545 at 86 metres tall and 44 metres wide, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which stands out for the seven-headed serpent statues that line the stairs to the temple.

Get a fire massage

A fire massage, or 'yam khang', is a speciality of northern Thailand, and you'll easily find authentic and specialist-trained therapists everywhere from a traditional outlet popular with locals to a five-star hotel.

The unusual massage is well worth trying both for the novelty and the benefits; it aims to relieve muscle, tendon, joint and bone pain, while releasing blocked energy.

The massage takes place outside where the therapist typically dips their foot in two oils, sesame and plai, and heats their foot on an iron 'khang' over a fire before massaging your body directly, giving a warm, soothing sensation; when their foot is cold, they repeat the procedure.

Try a top-notch traditional one at Hangdong Thai Massage School, or if pure luxury is what you're after, book into Aleenta Retreat Chiang Mai or Anantara Chiang Mai Resort.

Dive into the local cuisine

Be sure to try khao soi, a delicious and hearty coconut-based curry with a choice of protein, noodles, topped with fried noodles for added crunch and served alongside pickles, raw onion, lime and chilli sauces. Head to Michelin Guide-listed Khao Soi Mae Sai for a seductive example of khao soi.

Delve into crispy pork with sticky rice
Delve into crispy pork with sticky rice © Cheattha - Adobe Stock Image

Then there's crispy pork and sticky rice found at food markets; it's simple but the seasoning on the crunchy pork is out of this world.

For an all-encompassing local foodie experience book a Khantoke Dinner at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center, where you will be served chicken, Lanna (the ancient northern ethnic group) style multigrain dip, oxtail stew and more, with traditional dancing, singing and performances on stage as you eat.

Hit the markets

A trip to Chiang Mai's night bazaar is an outing in itself. It's a huge area covering a whole neighbourhood of stalls selling crafts such as wooden-carved elephants, clothing, paintings and more; don't miss out on the tasty street food and live music.

Tha Pae Sunday Walking Street happens once a week, starting from Tha Pae Gate towards Ratchadamnoen Road, it closes to traffic from 4 pm creating a temporary pedestrianised street where you'll find local handicrafts such as rattan ware as well as street food.

The busy Sunday market on Tha Pae Walking Street
The busy Sunday market on Tha Pae Walking Street © 501room - Shutterstock.com

Wua Lai Walking Street occurs on a Saturday and is marginally quieter and more spacious, selling a plethora of local handicrafts. Food lovers will enjoy Warorot Market, a fantastic food market selling specialities such as crispy pork and rice, crispy pork skin and local spicy sausages, while next door Ton Lamyai Market is a stunning sight to see, as it just sells colourful flowers.

Visit an ethical elephant sanctuary

For a chance to see these majestic creatures up close without causing harm while donating to their care, consider a visit to an elephant sanctuary. However, you must do your research to ensure any sanctuary you choose to visit is legitimately ethical.

Look for sanctuaries with large enclosures, letting the elephants form natural herds and where, if you can feed them, it's with a barrier in-between. Often, if close physical contact is allowed, it can sadly have derived from poor treatment through training them.

Often you can watch these incredible beasts from viewing platforms as a guide insightfully interprets their behaviour.

Take in the national parks

Given its high, mountainous location, one of the best ways to appreciate the surrounding natural beauty of the Thai Highlands is to lace up your hiking boots and get out there.

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, home to wondrous waterfalls, the royal residence of Bhubing Palace and the sacred site of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, is easily accessible from the city.

Pagodas in Doi Inthanon National Park
Pagodas in Doi Inthanon National Park © Deemwave - Adobe Stock Image

Another is Doi Inthanon National Park with yet more waterfalls such as Mae Ya Waterfall, Mae Klang Waterfall and Mae Pan Waterfall; look out for temples, stupas and unmissable Doi Inthanon, the highest mountains in Thailand.

Climate in Chiang Mai

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall

The above guide shows the climate in Chiang Mai. Find out more about conditions across the country in our complete guide to the climate in Thailand.

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Yasemen Kaner-White

Yasemen Kaner-White

Posted on Friday 24th May 2024 in: Asia City Excursions

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